This has garnered a lot of coverage, but the true significance of the missile being tested as it concerns the Korean peninsula has not been fully discussed.
It is necessary to begin by addressing the terminology used in mainstream media during the initial reportage. The imprecise term “projectile” was frequently employed for political reasons, but a projectile is anything that can be hurled – such as a rock. When discussing missiles and rockets, the use of that term imparts little meaning.
Briefly, rockets are generally point-and-launch, have smaller payloads, travel shorter distances, and are less accurate.
Missiles, however, have well-developed guidance systems, carry larger payloads, travel longer distances, and are far more precise.
OBFUSCATION FACILITATES DIPLOMACY?
To be sure, these distinctions are well known, but many news outlets have avoided using the term “missile” so as to circumvent anything that would bring up an unpleasant certainty.
The consequence of a North Korean ballistic missile launch, of course, would jeopardize a third summit between North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.
By refusing to recognize that the missile launches violated UN sanctions as specified in UN Resolutions 2270, 2321, 2371, and 2375 as recognized by numerous experts, Trump and others are hoping to salvage denuclearization negotiations with Kim.
The whole affair reeks of diplomatic objectives overriding accuracy in journalism
Even South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is involved in the subterfuge.
Seoul has consistently downplayed the significance of the short-range ballistic missile launches, initially referring to them merely as “projectiles” and Moon’s administration claims that it has not reached any conclusion as to what kind of “projectile” it was that the North launched.
Oddly, it is Moon’s own country that is at greatest risk from the new missiles. However, in perhaps a Freudian slip, Moon has recently admitted that the projectiles were indeed short-range ballistic missiles.
The whole affair reeks of diplomatic objectives overriding accuracy in journalism, politics hampering necessary dialog, and obfuscation clouding public understanding of the threat to South Korea. Additionally, it sends the wrong message to Pyongyang as to what constitutes acceptable behavior.
But while both Moon and Trump ignore the evidence, each has his own rationale for doing so. Moon sees the general threat that North Korea poses to his country as being solvable only through diplomatic means.
After all, any military conflict would inflict tremendous damage upon the South. His motivation to not let anything disrupt denuclearization discussions with Kim is therefore huge.
Trump, on the other hand, may be seen as having little skin in the game since those recently tested rockets and missiles pose no threat to the U.S. mainland.
Seoul has consistently downplayed the significance of the short-range ballistic missile launches
That version has a range of 280 kilometers (170 miles), thus covering much of South Korea. It can carry a payload of 450 to 500 kilograms (990 to 1100 pounds) and is therefore nuclear-capable.
Further, the Iskander is capable of in-flight course adjustments. The missile is both gas-dynamically maneuverable through thrust-vectoring and aerodynamically steerable by small vanes at the rear. It can tolerate up to 30g of force.
One of those would undoubtedly be for providing the necessary data to missiles such as the Iskander for real-time flight-path corrections to improve its already considerable precision.
But even without its own satellite, North Korea might have access to guidance data through either Russian GLONASS or Chinese Beidou satellite navigation. Using any such system, the target circular error probable (CEP) of the Iskander is only 2 to 7 meters (7 to 23 feet).
However, the Iskander also possesses scene-matching correlation technology in which an electro-optical homing head compares in-flight terrain with a stored target image.
The importance of this is recognized when one recalls that North Korean drones were sent into South Korea in 2017 to take photographs of potential civilian and military targets.
This activity was initially linked to the optically-guidable 300mm rockets employed by the North, but the Iskander is yet another reason behind that effort, possibly even the primary impetus.
Consequently, even without either satellite or other GPS positioning data and relying only upon its integral electro-optical homing head, the Iskander has a CEP of 5 to 7 meters (16 to 23 feet) – still very impressive.
Furthermore, the Iskander travels in a flatter – though still ballistic – trajectory, its altitude remaining just below 50 kilometers (161,000 feet). That puts a significant portion of the Iskander’s flight path above the maximum engagement ceiling of the U.S. Patriot missile defense system which is not effective above 40 kilometers (129,000 feet), while remaining below the 50-kilometer engagement floor of the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) and Aegis missile defense systems.
The Islander thereby enjoys a nearly 10-kilometer (33,000-foot) layer of invulnerability before its customarily abrupt descent to its ground target.
A POTENTIAL SOLUTION REJECTED?
South Korea is reportedly developing its own missile defense system. The Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system is said to include upgraded versions of the American Patriot system as well as ship-borne SM-2 missiles and domestically-produced medium-range surface-to-air missiles.
The question is whether the new KAMD system will be able to counter the Iskander.
A parallel concern is why Seoul will not integrate its current or future defensive systems with the American Patriot and the THAAD systems currently positioned on the peninsula.
Tiered and fully integrated missile defense systems would be superior to isolated systems of differing capabilities – operated by two separate entities, no less.
The explanation is that – perhaps quite unwittingly – South Korea boxed itself into a corner during talks with China about the latter’s objections to the deployment of THAAD on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul promised Beijing that South Korea would not link its missile defenses with the new American system.
The question is whether the new KAMD system will be able to counter the Iskander
The critical dilemma now facing South Korean President Moon Jae-in is whether to alienate a major South Korean trading partner – China – or to join forces with its only defense partner – the United States – in shielding his country against the threat posed by this new and very challenging North Korean missile.
How Moon responds to this conundrum will also answer the question of whether the United States ought to be involved in the defense of South Korea.
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.